Richard Nixon and Katarina Witt might seem like an unlikely pair, but they’re both subjects of fascinating documentaries airing in the next week, each filtered — in varying degrees — through the prism of the Cold War: “The Diplomat,” about the German skater dubbed “the most beautiful face of socialism;” and “Our Nixon,” a fascinating glimpse of the disgraced former president, as captured through the eyes (and video cameras) of his closest aides.
For anyone who has seen the movie “The Lives of Others,” Witt’s story — as told in a terrific ESPN doc under its “Nine for IX” initiative chronicling women in sports — will have additional power, exploring how the figure skater was spied upon by the German secret police the Stasi, who were terrified she might try to defect.
Through interviews with Witt (who still looks pretty spectacular), her coach Jutta Muller and others — among them Ingo Steuer, a fellow skater who provided the Stasi information about her — filmmakers Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi meticulously detail her exploits on the ice, use as a global ambassador and struggles within the hierarchy of a system that exalted athletes as propaganda and simultaneously controlled them through threats and intimidation.
In the most remarkable passage, Witt is essentially told any hope of her turning pro and extending her skating career — a goal denied Muller’s daughter, another Olympian — depends on winning a gold medal in the 1988 Winter Games. The skater must then deal with the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the East German regime and blowback from disclosures about how athletes were lavishly rewarded while their countrymen barely eked out an existence.
This is, by any measure, a engrossing hour — mixing history with sports as effortlessly and gracefully as Witt appeared on ice. It’s also told with a wonderful sense of economy, considering how much ground gets covered in a mere 50 minutes sans commercials.
As for “Our Nixon” — which CNN will air Aug. 1, and Variety reviewed previously — director Penny Lane’s film is illustrated through 500 reels of films shot by chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Chapin from 1969-73. Accompanied by interviews as well as audio from the secret tapes Nixon recorded in the White House, it’s a truly absorbing look at the 37th president and the devoted insiders who surrounded him — and in several instances went to jail in his service.
Several moments stand out — among them an almost absurdly funny exchange in which Nixon talks with Ehrlichman and insists he didn’t know certain details pertaining to Watergate, which he appears to be trying to make clear for the benefit of the tapes that only he knows are being recorded. There’s also the revelation of hearing Nixon describe his first exposure to “All in the Family,” before embarking on a rant to his advisers about how accepting homosexuality will undermine any great republic.
As with politics in the post-Watergate era, it’s easy to become cynical about TV news, and ESPN and CNN frequently contribute to that sense of malaise. To their credit, though, they have also committed resources to certain longform showcases that have raised the bar and given HBO and PBS some welcome company in the classy-documentary space.
Viewed that way, it’s hard not to applaud the arrival of “The Diplomat” and “Our Nixon.” In fact, to borrow a popular joke from the period, even the Russian judge would probably give them high scores.